If you sell widgets, being #1 on Google for generic keywords like ‘widgets‘, ‘cheap widgets‘ and ‘buy widgets‘ is the stuff of dreams.

A top ranking for lucrative generic keywords can literally mean the difference between tens of thousands of dollars a month or more in revenue and no revenue whatsoever for many businesses.

Given this, it’s no surprise that many people focus their SEO efforts on the most obvious generic keywords. I’ve noticed this is especially amongst small business owners who have more to manage on a daily basis than SEO.

According to Hitwise, however, the generic keyword might not be to all web searchers and website owners what it used to be. The web analytics and measurement company has increasingly noticed that searchers are using longer search queries to seek out information:

The length of search queries has increased over the past year. Longer search queries, averaging searches of 5+ words in length, have increased 10 percent comparing January 2009 to January 2008. The same time period showed that shorter search queries, averaging those 1 to 4 words in length, have decreased 2 percent.

All told, Hitwise’s data indicates that less than 50% of searches now contain 1 or 2 keywords. Nearly 54% contain 3 or more keywords and just over 34% contain 4 or more keywords.

It’s likely that the trend towards longer search queries is being driven by increased searcher sophistication and the fact that the most generic keywords don’t always deliver the most relevant results.

Whatever the case, ‘widgets‘, ‘cheap widgets‘ and ‘buy widgets‘ clearly aren’t the only game in town; there’s a long-tail universe of keywords and phrases that might be of benefit for SEO.

Several days ago, seobook.com’s Aaron Wall posted an interesting article titledWhy it Makes Sense to Target Longtail Keywords First‘.

In it he explains that long-tail keywords are subject to a different set of rules; that search engine algorithms weigh various factors differently for less competitive keywords and phrases.

While I’ve never seen any hard evidence of this, the argument is very logical. For long tail keywords, factors such as domain authority, link diversity and link anchor text probably do matter less than on page optimization because there’s simply less competition requiring the algorithm to look at the former factors.

So does this mean that you should run out and shift your SEO efforts to focus on long tail keywords? Of course not.

It probably doesn’t make sense to ignore the potential of long-tail keywords but it doesn’t make sense to overestimate their importance to your SEO strategy.

It all depends on your market; metrics such as conversion rates, ARPU and ROI should all play a role in keyword selection. After all, if you run a low margin, high volume business, targeting a large group of long-tail keywords might not make sense since there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to generate enough traffic from them collectively to make the effort worthwhile (or profitable).

On the other hand, if you run a niche online business and your website has consistently converted at 1:10 with an ARPU of $100 at margins of 75%, a few good SERPs for long-tail keywords might provide the perfect boost.

As always, a good SEO strategy depends on staying on top of trends and figuring out what fits for your business. The long tail just might be a part of that strategy.